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Introduction

GREEK

The religion of the ancient Greeks was focused on the worship of the Sun, the Moon, and a race of divine beings known as the Olympians. Whilst the cults of the Sun and the Moon are unexceptional, the cults of the Olympian gods are wrapped in a mythology that sheds considerable light on the origins and significance of the Greek religion.

Who, or what, were the Olympian gods? According to scholars, the Greek gods personified the mundane forces of nature. They were nature-gods, fertility-gods, thunder-gods, lightning-gods, hailstone-gods, and rain-gods, whose dwelling place, Mount Olympus, lay in the clouds. As 'Encyclopaedia Britannica' (1999 edition) explains:

According to the Greek poet Homer, Heaven was located on the summit of Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and the logical home for a weather god.

But what did the ancient Greeks say?

For an answer to the mystery of the Olympian gods, we must look first to the works of the great poets Homer and Hesiod who laid the literary foundations of Greek religion during the 8th century BC. As Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, wrote: ‘It was Homer and Hesiod who composed a divine genealogy for the Greeks, and who gave the gods their titles, allocated to them their powers and fields of expertise, and made clear their forms.’

In the works of Homer (Iliad; Odyssey) and Hesiod (Theogony; Works and Days), the gods are given human-like appearances and personalities. However, in the Iliad, Homer makes it clear that the gods are a race apart from humans. He has Apollo express the following warning to one of the heroes of the Trojan War:

“Never think yourself the equal of the gods – since there can be no likeness ever between the make of immortal gods and of men who walk on the ground.”

This difference between gods and humans becomes strikingly obvious when the hero Diomedes attacks the Goddess Aphrodite:

And the spear pierced straight through the skin [of Aphrodite]... and immortal’s blood dripped from her – ichor, which runs in the blessed gods’ veins. They do not eat food, they do not drink gleaming wine, and so they are without (normal) blood and are called immortals.

In addition to their immortality and strange physiology, the gods also possessed supernatural size and strength; the ability to travel vast distances in a blink of the eye; and the ability to metamorphose into numerous different forms. Their true nature, it would seem, was that of invisible, spiritual entities (or daimones, to use the Greek term).

How to rationalise the human, and yet non-human, nature of the Olympian gods? The answer is personification. Following the pattern established in Mesopotamia more than two thousand years earlier, Homer’s and Hesiod’s gods personified the cosmic powers that had acted at the beginning of the world.

This brings us to the Greek creation myth.

In Hesiod’s Theogony, the origin of all the gods is traced to an original primal marriage of Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth):

Great Ouranos came, bringing on Night, and desirous of love, he spread himself over Gaia, stretched out in every direction.

From this celestial union, Gaia (Earth) bore the first generation of gods and giants, which included Kronos, the three Cyclopes, and the three Hundred-handers. She groaned, we are told, when these gods and giants were pressed tight inside her womb.

In this myth, Ouranos personifies the Mountain of Heaven, which physically explodes and falls to the Earth, thus sowing the seeds of creation. His name Ouranos meant literally ‘Mountain of Heaven’ (from the Greek word ouros for ‘mountain’), and he was thus a cognate for the older Mesopotamian gods Anu, Enlil, Enki, and Zu, who likewise personified the Mountain of Heaven.

Following her insemination by Ouranos, Gaia also gave birth to the mountains, the sea, and the heavenly abode of Mount Olympus, which Hesiod described as ‘a secure seat for ever for the blessed gods’.

At the same time, according to Hesiod, Gaia gave birth to an image of Ouranos himself:

Earth bore, first of all, one equal to herself, starry Ouranos, so that he should cover her all about, to be a secure seat for ever for the blessed gods.

The gods were thus given two ‘secure seats’: one on Mount Olympus and one on Ouranos (‘the Mountain of Heaven’). The idea, it would seem, is that the gods, having been born from the Earth, ascended into the sky to take up residence (a) on Mount Olympus; and (b) in the stars (Ouranos being synonymous with the starry heavens).

What was the nature of Mount Olympus? Not a terrestrial mountain with its peak in the Earth’s troposphere, as scholars assume. Rather, an invisible image of the original Mountain of Heaven (Ouranos), which was created in the so-called pure air, or upper air, which the Greeks called aither.

The Olympian gods, as invisible and aethereal entities, thus came to reside upon an equally invisible and aethereal ‘mountain’ which had been created by magic in the heavenly void.

The idea was that Ouranos, the father of the gods, had disintegrated and descended physically from Heaven to Earth, whereupon Gaia bore a metaphysical image of Ouranos in the sky, henceforth to be called Mount Olympus, and a metaphysical image of his ‘children’, henceforth to be called the gods.

All of this was in the best traditions of ancient Near Eastern mythology, as found particularly in Mesopotamia from the 3rd millennium BC.

Other Gods too personified the ‘Mountain of Heaven’ which had exploded and fallen upon the Earth. The best example here is Zeus, who had become ‘king of the gods’ after the successive dethronements of Ouranos and Kronos. In Theogony, Hesiod describes how Zeus brought his battle against the Titans to a climactic end by plunging down from the heavenly Mount Olympus:

... with continuous lightning flashes Zeus went, and the bolts flew thick and fast amid thunder and lightning from his stalwart hand, trailing holy flames. All around, the life-bearing Earth rumbled as it burned... The whole land was seething, and the streams of Oceanus, and the undraining sea. The hot blast enveloped the chthonic Titans; the indescribable flames reached the divine heavens... it was just as if Earth and the broad Heaven above were coming together...

In the aftermath of this cataclysmic battle, two things occurred which attest to the fundamental cataclysmic nature of Greek religion and mythology.

Firstly, Zeus planted in the earth, at Delphi, the stone that had been swallowed and ejected by Kronos. This stone was a baetylus, or meteorite.

Secondly, Zeus ordered the Titan god Atlas to support the Heaven (or heavens) on his shoulders – lest the sky collapse upon the Earth once again.

As for Zeus, he was reborn as a spirit after his physical fall from Heaven to Earth. According to a famous myth, Gaia had protected Zeus by concealing him deep within the Earth ‘in a cave hard of access’, supposedly beneath the island of Crete. Zeus had then grown rapidly, with his limbs ‘shining’, until he had eventually sprung forth from the mountain to the accompaniment of a tremendous noise. This myth went hand in hand with a ritual: every year the Cretans would celebrate the mystery of Zeus by building a great fire to commemorate his birth from the subterranean cave.

The meaning of this mystery is that Zeus had come into being as an independent spirit which had separated from his body. Whilst his body had remained behind in the Earth (hence the myths of him swallowing various gods and goddesses), his spirit had soared up into the sky, to become the Universe, in the same manner as Ouranos had been reborn as Olympus and Ouranos (the heavens).

The idea was that the Great God (in this case Zeus) personified the death of the old Universe and the rebirth of the new Universe.

Other Greek Gods, too, personified the death and rebirth of the Universe, although their mythologies were in part occulted by the requirement to make them ‘sons’ and ‘daughters’ of Zeus. Thus the myth of the God’s death, or fall from the sky, is preserved in fragments of the mythologies of Hera, Athene, Asteria/Leto, Poseidon, Apollo, Hermes, Dionysus, and Hephaestus. But each God and Goddess is reborn from the Earth as a spirit (daimon) to the accompaniment of either bright light, or fire, or loud noise, or a quaking of the Earth, and thereupon ascends to the heavenly Mount Olympus.

This separation of the God’s spirit from his body marks the ‘separation of the heavens from the Earth’, which, significantly, coincides with a cataclysm.

In the Argonautika of Apollonios Rhodios, Orpheus reports the following account of the mingling of Heaven and Earth, followed by their forceful separation:

He sang how, in the beginning, Earth, Heaven and sea were confounded in common mass together and then, as the result of grievous strife, were separated one from the other...

Similarly, the dramatist Euripides described a forceful separation of Heaven from Earth. He had Melanippe-the-wise state:

“It is not my word, but my mother’s word,
How Heaven and Earth were once one form; but stirred
And strove, and dwelt asunder far away;
And then, re-wedding, bore unto the day
And light of life all things that are: the trees,
Flowers, birds and beasts, and those that breathe the seas,
And mortal man, each in his kind and law.”

The Earth thus gave birth to the heavens amidst a cataclysm – an idea attested also in the myth of Ouranos and Gaia, and the birth myth of Zeus (see earlier), as well as in other myths such as the birth of Athene from the Zeus after the latter’s ‘head’ (the Earth) had been split open by the axe of Hephaestus.

A cataclysm also marked the creation of mankind, according to the popular myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha. In days of yore, it was said, Zeus had unleashed a great flood upon the face of the Earth, and the progenitors of the human race, Deucalion and Pyrrha, had built a great boat, into which they embarked. This boat was then swept away by the floodwaters which eventually covered the surface of the whole world. But, after nine days, the waters subsided and the boat became grounded atop a sacred mountain. Thereupon, the hero and the heroine disembarked, offered the obligatory sacrifice to the gods, and prayed for the creation of mankind. At this point, something very odd happened. The myth runs that Themis – a Mother Earth-goddess – appeared to Deucalion and Pyrrha and advised them: “Shroud your heads and throw the bones of your mother behind you!”. Immediately, the heroic couple did as they were told. They picked up stones from the river bank and, while covering their heads, threw these stones over their shoulders. Incredibly, the stones thrown by Deucalion became men, whilst the stones thrown by Pyrrha became women; and thus was the human race created.

Other Greek myths allude to a sequence of world ages, each of which was brought to an end by a cataclysm, of which the Flood of Deucalion was the most recent. Intriguingly, the Earth was said to be inhabited in the earlier world ages not by the present race of humans but by precursor species, whom Hesiod described as the golden race, the silver race, and the bronze race.

In his book Timaeus, the Athenian philosopher Plato had an Egyptian priest state that the Earth had been devastated on many occasions in the past by floods of fire and water that had rained down from the heavens. These cataclysms were caused, said the priest, by deviations in the courses of the celestial bodies. Significantly, Plato suggested that such a cataclysmic event lay behind the myth of Phaethon, the son of Helios, who had crashed his father’s chariot into the Earth, setting the whole world on fire. In other words, the God Phaethon personified the ‘fall of the sky’.

Conclusions

The ancient Greek myths were largely borrowed and adapted from the older myths of Mesopotamia. Greek religion was a ‘cult of creation’. The Great God and Great Goddess personified the cataclysm of creation and the formative Universe.

Reading List

A.F. Alford, ‘The Atlantis Secret’, Eridu Books, 2001.

C. Boer trans., ‘The Homeric Hymns’, Spring Publications, 1970.

W. Burkert, ‘Greek Religion’, Harvard University Press, 1985.

W. Burkert, ‘The Orientalising Revolution’, Harvard University Press, 1995 edition.

J.M. Cooper ed., ‘Plato: Complete Works’, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1997.

R. Graves, ‘The Greek Myths’, combined edition, Penguin Books, 1992.

P. Green trans., ‘Argonautika’ by Ap. Rhodios, University of California Press, 1997.

W.K.C. Guthrie, ‘Orpheus and Greek Religion’, Princeton University Press, 1993.

M. Hammond trans, ‘Homer The Iliad’, Penguin Books, 1987.

C. Penglase, ‘Greek Myths and Mesopotamia’, Routledge, 1994.

E.V. Rieu trans., ‘Homer The Odyssey’, Penguin Books, 1991 edition.

R. Stoneman ed., ‘Pindar The Odes and Selected Fragments’, Everyman, 1997.

M.L. West, ‘The East Face of Helicon’, Clarendon Press, 1999.

M.L. West, ‘Hesiod, Theogony and Works and Days’, Oxford University Press,Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition, 1999.

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'These pages are the copyright of Eridu Books 2004. The images and diagrams are the copyright of Alan Alford or of other photographers, where indicated. Eridu Books welcomes the reproduction and dissemination of these pages, in original, unaltered form, for non-commercial purposes, but permission must be sought for any other usage, other than 'fair dealing' quotations.'

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